It's Friday, June 19, 2020, the day of the week when I reprise a quotation intended to be instructive or inspirational. Today's concerns Juneteenth, a date celebrating freedom -- and which African American writers from Ralph Ellison to Henry Louis Gates Jr. have associated with the healing power of sunlight.
On June 19, 1865, Gordon Granger, a U.S. Army general known for both quick-thinking courage on the battlefield and prickly relations with his superior officers, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with a contingent of nearly 2,000 Union troops. This was two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee's surrender, so Gen. Granger was surprised to find thousands of enslaved people living under Confederate domination in the port city.
But news traveled slowly in those days. Moreover, some unrepentant Southerners had fled other states in Dixie, bringing their slaves with them to Texas after the collapse of the rebel armies in the East. Granger responded by issuing an order splendid in his simplicity:
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.'"
By "Executive of the United States," Granger meant President Lincoln, who had been dead more than two months. But this officer had fought in Mr. Lincoln's Army since the onset of the Civil War and old habits die hard. Granger's original order, which was unearthed Thursday by officials at the National Archives, continued: "This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."
At first, the 19th of June was celebrated only in Texas. Over the years, however, newly freed African Americans spread it to other states as they dispersed throughout the Union. In times of national reckoning on race -- we are in such a time now -- its reach and meaning extends beyond the African American community. It's difficult to adjudge history as it's happening, but my view is that this date has reached a tipping point, and will soon become a national holiday. Presently, 47 states observe it as an official or ceremonial holiday, and each June 19 the Trump White House, like the proceeding Obama White House, has put out an official statement honoring the occasion.
Seven years ago, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote an essay about Juneteenth for "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," a book and PBS series by the same name. He reprised it the following year and included a postscript:
"I grew up in West Virginia, many miles from the site of the first Juneteenth, and I never heard of the holiday until I went off to college. But I have come to see the beauty in its unexpected past and persistence. Besides, June 19 is generally a more comfortable day for outdoor family fun -- for fine jazz music and barbecue -- than Jan. 1, a day short on sunlight."
In a previous article, Gates had quoted W.E.B. Du Bois' summation of Reconstruction: "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery."
"At the time," Gates wrote later, "I failed to appreciate just how apt a description it was. Of all Emancipation Day observances, Juneteenth falls closest to the summer solstice … the longest day of the year, when the sun, at its zenith, defies the darkness in every state, including those once shadowed by slavery. By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched -- reflecting the mystical glow of history and lore, memory and myth, as Ralph Ellison evoked in his posthumous novel, Juneteenth -- we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment of those simple, unanticipating words in Gen. Granger's original order that ‘This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.'
"My hope this Juneteenth," Professor Gates concluded, "is that we never forget it."
And that's your quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.